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Home » Health

Do U.S. Employers have an Ethical Obligation to Give their Employees Paid Sick Days?

Last updated by on 18 Comments

It was a Friday, just the third day back from an extended two-week holiday vacation when my throat started getting scratchy.

By the next morning, I was running a fever. Much of the next two days, I didn’t leave the couch. Tired, achy, stuffy nose, soar throat, fever, and in a daze.

The thought of going in to work the next day? Awful! Unthinkable!

Most of us are faced with a dilemma at this point.

  1. Do we tough it out and go in to work?
  2. Do we stay home and spare ourselves the agony (and our co-workers, clients, or customers future agony)?

If we have the option of taking a paid sick day, most of us do it. Yeah, we might feel a little guilty, stressed about falling behind, but I’m willing to bet that there’s still a large majority out there who would opt to stay home, even it today’s hyper-competitive, stressful work climate. I’d even argue that there is a moral obligation to do so, so you don’t infect others.

My employer does offer paid sick days, so I took the next work day (three actually) to recover. I’m sure my co-workers appreciated it.

But what if you don’t have paid sick days as an option? What if you’re in debt? You need to pay your family’s rent? Put food on the table? What are you going to do?

The moral argument goes out the window at that point. Why should you, as a hard working employee, put your financial situation at risk to spare others from getting sick when your employer doesn’t have the decency to offer its employees a paid sick day?

Many Americans Don’t Have the Option of Taking a Paid Sick Day

paid sick dayUnfortunately, that’s the scenario that about one-third, or 41.7 million Americans face when becoming ill.

Yes, the U.S. is the most overworked nation. Its citizens also have the least parental leave (actually, the only with no paid leave), and now we have the dubious distinction of being the only developed country without a law guaranteeing employees the right to paid sick days.

  • Should the government make it a law that employee’s should be guaranteed paid sick leave?
  • Do employers have an ethical (if not legal) obligation to offer their employees paid sick days?

Before you answer those questions, consider that:

  • 79% of food system workers don’t get any paid sick days. With that metric, you’re almost guaranteed to come in contact with some unwholesome bacteria… on the very food you put in your mouth.
  • 23% of workers in the healthcare and social assistance sector don’t get paid sick days.
  • most retail and grocery workers (touching and bagging your stuff) don’t get paid sick days.
  • millions of children are sent to school each year because their parents can’t take days off to stay home with them.
  • millions of days of productivity are lost each year when those who are sick come to work and infect others – the overall economic impact of the flu in the U.S. is $87.1 billion each year.
  • more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for flu-related complications each year.
  • over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.

Now… go ahead, and debate away.

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18 Comments »
  • Trevor says:

    This is a tricky question to answer. Here’s why; we as a country are one of the most unhealthy industrialized nations. We ingest more food like/lab created substances than anyone else. So if we as a nation were to mandate sick days as paid by the employer we would also have to drastically change our food regulation.

    My other argument to this is; as someone who has managed low paid workers (who this topic effects most) have seen many people try and “game” our current FMLA system. Granted FMLA is not paid, and is not for occasional sickness, but if people are trying to mess with that then why wouldn’t they maximize their “sick time” whether they are sick or not?

    In short I don’t fully agree with a government mandated sick time policy with out further policy changes beyond sick time.

  • This is something that I don’t have to deal with because my employer is generous enough to allow us to work from home if we are sick. I believe that we only make things worse when we go into work when we are sick. Not only are we not as productive, but we can spread the illness to many others, causing more productivity loss. I think employers have a moral obligation to provide paid sick leave, but I wouldn’t put a legal ramification on it. That could get messy!

  • Oliver @ Christian Money Blog says:

    I think it is easy to become numb to the struggles of folks who work low wage service jobs. Your points about the food workers and hospital workers hit home with me.

    The problem becomes paying for the sick days. If the employer has to eat the cost, that will result it higher prices for the consumer. Most of the profit margins are very thin in the industries where lack of paid sick days is a major problem.

    Maybe the answer is more flexiblity? The ability to shift the schedule around to meet the unforeseen problems that arise in all of our lives.

    This is a topic that needs more discussion I believe. Thanks for making me think!

    • A.M. says:

      Agreed about the flexibility! And it’s not just low-wage service workers who have this issue. I am an instructor at a community college, but because I am classified as “part time” (although I teach 4 classes and put in 40-50 hrs/week) I do not get benefits, including no sick leave.

      When I have to miss a class, for any reason, I MUST get a sub. The sub is paid about time and a half, and that money is deducted from my paycheck. Of course, I still have to prep the lesson for the sub, so it’s not as if I’m doing no work.

      The flexibility to swap classes (and not hassle with deducted pay) would be great, but at my college we are not allowed to do this for “safety” reasons. We are required to go through the formal sub process.

      • Sarah says:

        You make a good point. There are a lot of different types of jobs that don’t offer paid sick days or benefits. Not offering these perks is tough on the employees, but depending on the profit margins – and whether or not the company/school has to pay a sub to cover for you – it can definitely be difficult to eat the cost.

  • mdenis39 says:

    When you start a question with, “Should the government” or “Should there be a law”… inevitably I would answer that question with a “no”. By providing the stats above, is it your point that these workers would be less likely to infect others if their employers were required to offer sick pay? That is a stretch of an argument considering that we are infectious to others 24 hours before flu symptoms even develop.
    I think employers should offer sick time simply as an economical benefit for their company. Or more importantly, the culture of the company should encourage sick workers to skip work.

  • Jane says:

    I work in the healthcare industry for a small office who serves the elderly. We do not get paid sick time, though apparently my employer did offer it at one point but recinded the policy due to misue. We do get paid time off; however, if I was sick and I needed to miss more than one day of work, it is my employer’s policy that I cannot use my vacation time. In additon to that. My work rewards those who do not call in with a wellness bonus. If you don’t call in sick for 4 months you get a bouns equal to two days of work.

    One day, after I called in sick, my boss pulled me aside one Tuesday,and told me it looked bad when I call in on a Monday. I was legitamately sick and had still gone into work sick that Tuesday to show her that I was not “faking” it. Did she send me home? Nope. Though they tell us to stay home when we are sick, but all of their actions prove otherwise.

  • RS says:

    I recently heard the argument about rampant misuse of sick days while traveling in Oz. I was surprised to hear that while most companies have sick leave (paid or unpaid depending on the employer, key being that you won’t lose your job over it) you were required to get a doctor’s note for it!
    While I understand the intent is to curb misuse, I was appalled about the scenarios that were declined for use. I guess I am used to my company’s liberal sick leave policy. It is separate from vacation and applies to caring for sick, being sick yourself, or bereavement. Apparently going to the hospital for an elderly parent does not qualify for sick leave use in Oz, because you’re not actually the caregiver. The hospital is. I guess mental health of the hospital patient is of no concern.

    I would certainly not support initiatives to curb misuse by enforcing doctors notes.. How does one get a doctor’s note when you have a migraine and cannot drive? It’s absurd. I have no idea how you curb misuse, though. Perhaps making sick leave unpaid, but not a reason for dismissal would be a helpful deterrent? Although, I guess that doesn’t work in the case of low wage earners, where every hour counts.

    But it definitely seems that more workplaces are taking the “paid time off” approach, where the time is for both vacation and sick leave.. which definitely discourages use when you’re actually sick. I’ve had friends go into work after root canals, all hopped up on pain meds, simply because they had a vacation planned and therefore did not have any leave available to take off.

    I only realized recently that I had been taught to cover my mouth when coughing/sneezing as a kid. And as a kid, I would do that with my hand. Many of my co-workers do this too, and I watch them pass me papers or open doors and know that I’m probably going to get whatever they have.

  • Warren says:

    Some companies have a single item called paid time off where sick days, vacation days, holidays, and the like are rolled into one single allocation. Cheating on sick days means there are fewer vacation days left.

  • I work for a healthcare software company by day and we dont have sick days, but we have general PTO, paid time off, similar to what Warren described in the previous comment. It accrues at 1.5 days a month so 18 days per year. Not bad.

  • Chris says:

    I’m in the same boat as mdennis,

    But paid sick time would help make everyone healthier, but how do you prevent abuse of the system? And do mental health days count as sick leave?

  • John says:

    @RS, In Australia full-time employees are entitled to 10 sick days per year.
    Most employers don’t require a sick certificate. It is not a legal requirement. It is up to the employer to determine what proof they need from the employee to prove they were sick.
    I have never had to provide a sick certificate at any of my workplaces.

    If you run out of sick leave, you are in most cases able to take your annual leave as sick leave. This is up to the employer though, but it is usually better for a company to allow staff to do this.

    Also you mentioned “Apparently going to the hospital for an elderly parent does not qualify for sick leave use in Oz, because you’re not actually the caregiver”
    I have used sick leave when family members have been in hospital. The hospital can provide certificates also to prove you were there. It is up to the employer though on what they accept. Like with any countries, you get a few bosses that are not compassionate.

    Full-time employees are entitled to

    4 weeks paid annual leave ( holiday )
    10 days paid personal/carer’s ( you are sick, or your kid is sick )leave per year
    2 days unpaid carer’s leave, when needed.
    2 days paid compassionate leave, when needed. ( death in the family )
    12 months unpaid maternity leave for the primary carer of a new baby.
    18 weeks maternity leave paid at the minimum wage ( $15.96 per hour / $606.40 per week ) by the government, for the primary carer of a new baby.

    We also have long service leave. If we work for the same company for 10 years, we can be entitled to about 3 months paid leave.

    From an outsider looking in on this article, it amazes me that you guys don’t have something similar. We see sick days as a basic human right. We all get sick but we still need to be able to put food on the table.

    • Sarah says:

      That is very generous. It would be interesting to do a side-by-side comparison of all the similarities and differences in terms of public vs private employment, welfare, and retirement age/benefits between our countries.

      If all of that is basically the same, I would guess that it’s because we spend far too much money on defense and too little on keeping hard-working citizens happy and healthy.

  • Matt8667 says:

    Yes, paid leave should be mandated. We do work long and hard in this country. With a mass of people working paycheck to paycheck a few days off with no pay can be a killer. With average pay some what flat and with a lot of the food service industries knocking people bad to part time to avoid health care the very least we can do is pay a few days of sick leave. Corporate profits I think can manage some how to take a little dent from a bill going through. If sicks days are given up what next? This could be just the beginning.

  • Evelyn says:

    Absolutely not! I don’t think the government should be in the business of mandating anything – especially mandatory sick leave. Government mandates only ADD expenses for us all. As someone budget conscious, we should be against mandates of all kinds!!

  • Brett Wilson says:

    I think that they do have an obligation to give their employees sick days. They should also do this to prevent other employees from becoming ill.

  • charlie b. says:

    NO, NO, NO, Enough with government mandates, how about we as individuals accept responsibility for our own problems, and take the necessary steps to solve them.

    People get sick, and when they do they sometimes miss work, this of course results in lost income, have they ever heard of saving money for an emergency, if they had only saved 10% of their income,in a year that would be more than enough money to offset about 4 weeks of lost wages.

    Why should the employer have to pay for the employees poor money management? it is the employees responsibility to provide for the eventual illness that will happen to him (or her) we all get sick, its not IF we will get sick, its just WHEN.

    10%, I dont care how little money the worker makes, if he learns to live within his income, and spends 90 cents out of every dollar earned, and saves 10 cents, he will soon have a nest egg that he can fall back upon.

    A recent survey conducted by Rasmussen reports, and cited by Bonnie Kavoussi, for the Huffington post, said that 50% of americans are spending more than they make, our country has a negative savings rate (that means that virtually nobody is saving for their future (I know, some are saving, but those who are spending more than they make, cause the negative rate)

    Take responsibility for your own future, nearly all problems can be solved with enough money, getting sick is just one of lifes problems, prepare for it, stop expecting the govt. or your employer to do for you, what you should be doing for yourself, save 10% you will feel better.

  • cnj says:

    Yes the government should make sure companies aren’t taking advantage of their citizens. That’s the main objective of government, to protect its citizens. Also, if a person is allocated a number of sick days why does it matter if they abuse them? If they run out of their allotted time then they either can’t use them anymore or they won’t get paid the next time they are sick. Abuse and fraud will always happen that shouldn’t stop us from doing something beneficial for society. I wish people would really think about the issue at hand instead of reciting old and tired assumptions.

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